Attorney General Rob McKenna and 27 other states’ Attorney Generals have challenged the federal healthcare insurance mandate. The “individual mandate” requires that Americans carry health insurance or pay a penalty. The Administration claims that the Constitution’s Commerce Clause gives Congress the power to force Americans to buy health insurance or pay a fine. Rob McKenna has asked the court to keep Congress and this law within the bounds of the Constitution.
Framing the debate, Judge Robert Vinson of the U.S. District Court for Northern Florida, wrote yesterday (January 31, 2011) “This case . . . is not really about our health care system at all. It is principally about our federal system, and it raises very important issues regarding the Constitutional role of the federal government.” The Judge rejected the notion that the federal government can require citizens to purchase a commercial product in a private market, ruling that “The individual mandate falls outside the boundary of Congress’ Commerce Clause authority and cannot be reconciled within limited government with enumerated powers . . . It is not Constitutional.” It is expected that Judge Vinson’s ruling will be appealed by the Administration and will eventually be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Judge’s ruling was that the entire law “must be declared void,” because the mandate to carry insurance is “not severable” from the rest of the law.
In December 2010, U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson in Virginia also found that individual mandate was unconstitutional, but he said his ruling applied only to part of the law that established the mandate and any directly dependent provision that referred to that part. (See A+C Blog post dated December 27, 2010 http://www.ac-lawyers.com/blog_article.php?article=233). Judge Vinson’s decision is broader and declares the entire healthcare bill unconstitutional.
This decision is a victory for Republicans, who see the court battles as part of a multi-pronged strategy to chisel away at the law. Earlier this month, the Republican led House voted to repeal the entire law. Since Democrats still control the Senate and the White House, the repeal is expected to remain only as a symbolic move.
Judge Vinson’s ruling is also remarkable in that he did not grant the challengers of the law an injunction; he awarded them “declaratory relief,” and cited an earlier Supreme Court ruling to suggest that is the “functional equivalent of an injunction.” In other words, the Judge indicated there is a long standing presumption that federal government officials will adhere to the law as declared by the court, suggesting that the government will not enforce a law which a judge has found unconstitutional.